Jesus Wants Ordinary People
Why are you here? I’m not asking why you are here this morning. Why are you here … on earth? What is your purpose? You know, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a goal and a purpose. Goals are what we hope to accomplish. Purpose is what we hope to accomplish in the grander scheme of things as we accomplish goals. Take for example the goals and purpose of swimmer, Madeline DiRado.
At the age of 23, she was something of a late bloomer when she qualified for the 2016 Olympics. She had just missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics and everyone knew, including Madeline, that this would be her one and only chance to compete in the Olympic Games. She would be competing in the 400-meter medley, the 200-meter medley, and the 200-meter backstroke.
She credited her coach for pushing her to try for the Olympic team. While this was her goal, it was not her purpose. She told Yahoo! Sports, “I don’t think God really cares about my swimming very much. This is not my end purpose, to make the Olympic team.” When asked what she thinks God does care about as she prepares for Rio, DiRado replied, “I think God cares about my soul and whether I’m bringing his love and mercy into the world. Can I be a loving, supportive teammate, and can I bless others around me in the same way God has been so generous with me?”
And in case you are wondering about those goals; she medaled in all four events, taking home one bronze, one silver, and two gold medals. But her purpose was not to make the Olympic team, or even to swim, as much as she loved to swim. Those were goals. Her purpose … her larger purpose, is to follow Jesus and share his love and mercy with her teammates, and with everyone else she meets. In the grand scheme of things, earning the right to represent your country in the Olympics and winning Olympic medals, even gold medals are great goals, but they aren’t a purpose. They aren’t a reason for being. So let me ask you again … why are you here? What provides meaning in your life? Turn with me to Mark 1:13-20.
As Jesus comes onto the scene, his cousin, John the Baptist, recedes into the background. Mark says only that John is now in prison. We know from the other gospels that his preaching, directed at Herod’s great sins, had upset Herod, and so Herod had thrown him into prison. But the gospel of John also tells us in John 3 that John the Baptist had amassed quite a following himself, and had his own group of disciples who followed him around and learned from him. And as Jesus began his ministry in earnest, John disciples have noticed that many of the people who once came to hear John speak are now going to hear Jesus speak, and Jesus was also baptizing those who repented of their sin in the same stretch of the Jordan River that John was using.
And it seems that they didn’t like it that this man, who they now saw as a rival preacher, was getting more attention than their own teacher. So they ran to John to tattle. “And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness – look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (Jn. 3:26). Now, listen to John’s reply. “John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:27-30). He must increase. I must decrease. John had fulfilled his purpose. He had accomplished his task. He had prepared the way for Jesus. The prelude was over, and the first act had begun.
But not without a sense of foreboding. If the one who paved the way ran into trouble with the political and religious leaders, what would happen to the one whose way was being paved? If John was arrested, what would happen to Jesus? If John was executed … The phrase Mark used, which we translate as “arrested,” is actually “handed over.” It’s the same phrase Mark used to describe Judas betraying Jesus – Judas “handed Jesus over” to the religious leaders.
And now Jesus is on stage – yes, with a sense of foreboding. But he is on stage nonetheless. But notice where Jesus arrives on stage. In Galilee. In the original Star Wars movie, Luke describes the tiny, poor, desert planet he called home, saying “Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” That’s not a bad description of Galilee. Jerusalem was the bright center of the region. It was the religious and political hub. Galilee – 3 days journey north of Jerusalem – not so much. It was politically unimportant. The wants, needs, and perspectives of the people who lived there didn’t matter to anyone. Culturally, Galilee was very rural and very backward. The people there spoke a distinctive dialect too, and that gave them away when they did travel, which wasn’t often. The people of Galilee lived close to the land. They were farmers and livestock herders and fishermen. To the people of Jerusalem, the people of Galilee seemed as backward and out of touch as Appalachian hillbillies might seem to Manhattan millionaires.
And that is where Jesus goes looking for people to mentor. The kingdom of God would be birthed not among the social elites, the rich and the powerful and the educated in Jerusalem. No, the kingdom would be birthed among the superstitious, unsophisticated Galileans. Of course, for those who know the beginning of the story, that makes sense. Jesus was born to an unassuming, unwed couple in a feed trough in Bethlehem and he was raised in Nazareth, a relatively unaccessible city in? – you guessed it – Galilee. The kingdom of God was going to turn everything – ABSOLUTELY everything – upside down. And it would be born among the masses, among normal, everyday people.
And what was Jesus’ message to these normal, everyday people? Look at V. 15. THE time – the time that all of history had been moving toward, the time that every prophecy had pointed toward, was now. The kingdom of God, the reign and rule of God, had broken into the kingdom of men, and was so close, you could touch it. Right there. In backward, unimportant Galilee, unimportant, regular, every day, regular people could reach out and touch it. Because they could reach out and touch him. And not only could they touch it, they could enter it. How? Two simple words. Repent, and believe.
Repent. There’s that word again. That word that we don’t like. The word that means “turn away from.” That word that seems to suggest that there is something in our lives that we really do need to turn away from. Repent.
Lesslie Newbigin was a long-time missionary to India, and in one of his books, he writes about the true meaning of repentance:
I remember once visiting a village in the Madras diocese. There was no road into the village; you reached it by crossing a river, and you could do this either on the south side of the village or on the north. The congregation had decided that I would come by the southern route, and they had prepared a welcome such as only an Indian village can prepare. There was music and fireworks and garlands and fruit and silumbum (the performance of a South Indian martial art done on ceremonial occasions) – everything you can imagine. Unfortunately I entered the village at the north end and found only a few goats and chickens. Crisis! I had to disappear while word was sent to the assembled congregation, and the entire village did a sort of U-turn so as to face the other way. Then I duly reappeared.
This is what repentance – metanoia is the Greek word – means. The point is: “The reign of God has drawn near, but you can’t see it because you are looking the wrong way. You are expecting the wrong thing. What you think is ‘God’ isn’t God at all. You have to be, as Paul says, transformed by the renewing of your mind. You have to go through a mental revolution; otherwise the reign of God will be totally hidden from you.”
Repent – turn around and look the other direction. And then GO in that direction. That’s the “believe” part. When we think of the word “believe,” we tend to ask the question, “Believe what?” What premise or idea are you asking me to accept. But that isn’t the whole idea that the word “believe” contains. It INCLUDES accepting the premise that Jesus is the Son of God and that God raised him from the dead. But it goes further. It means to ENTRUST myself to his care. When I get on an airplane, I accept the premise that the pilot is adequately trained and capable of flying the plane, and then I entrust myself to her care when I get on the plane and take my seat as the plane taxis away from the gate. Repent, and believe. That is the call of Jesus, and it is a powerful call indeed.
Look at Vv. 16-17. And then down at V. 19. Remember, Jesus is already in Galilee. Now, I’m sure there were some regional and city officials Jesus could have approached. But that isn’t where he went. He walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. By local standards, it was a big lake. Small fishing villages were numerous along its shores, and the lake fed not just the inhabitants of those villages, but in the wider region. In fact, fish from the lake were shipped all over the Roman empire and were highly sought after. You just had to tolerate the backward Galileans to get it.
To us, today, living along the shores of Lake Michigan, the Sea of Galilee wouldn’t seem like much at all. Lake Michigan is 307 miles long and 118 miles wide at its widest point. The Sea of Galilee is just 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. It pales in comparison to our inland sea. Of course, when you consider the types of “boats” the fishermen used – small, shallow boats with low sides that made it easy to get nets full of fish into – boats that were much smaller than even the smallest of ski boats we use today – you can see why a bad storm on even that small lake could get people on edge. Even in that day, these weren’t anything close to the merchant and military ships that sailed the Mediterranean Sea. They were glorified canoes.
Nonetheless, Jesus is looking for … someone. Peter, Andrew, James, and John, to be specific. The fact that these young men are at work as fishermen, learning the trade of their fathers, the trade of most fathers in that area – fishing – means that they’d dropped out of school, no longer able to keep up intellectually. The Jewish educational system was designed so that only the best and brightest made it all the way through. The others fell away and began to learn to scratch out a living in the same trade their fathers, and grandfathers, and great grand fathers had worked. These men weren’t the best and the brightest. They were what was left. Regular, every day people whose dream of a better life than the life they had grown up in had been replaced by the acceptance of the same life their families had known for generations. And they had accepted it. Their great grandfathers were fishermen. Their grandfathers were fishermen. Their fathers were fishermen. And now, they were fishermen too. Time to get on with it.
Until their quiet acceptance of a quiet, unassuming life on the familiar shores of Galilee was shattered by the undeserved, unexpected call of Jesus – FOLLOW ME. It was the same call the great rabbis of the day offered to the best and the brightest of the students who managed to make it all the way through the educational system. Follow me. Learn from me. And learn to do what I do. Walk with me.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s a half-literate Italian craftsman named Antonio Stradivari designed and made a series of beautiful musical instruments. Today, those violins, named after the Latinized form of his name, Stradivarius, are considered priceless. In 2010, a Stradivarius was purchased for $3.6 million. It is believed there are only around five hundred of them still in existence, some of which have been submitted to the most intense scientific examination in an attempt to reproduce their extraordinary sound quality. But no one has been able to replicate Stradivari’s craftsmanship.
Today we do know that Stradivari used spruce for the top, willow for the internal blocks and linings, and maple for the back, ribs, and neck. He also treated the wood with several types of minerals, including potassium borate, sodium and potassium silicate, as well as a handmade varnish that appears to have been composed of gum arabic, honey, and egg white.
But the genius craftsman never once recorded his technique for posterity. Instead, he passed on his knowledge to a number of his apprentices through what one scholar called “elbow learning.” The apprentices of the great Stradivari didn’t learn their craft from books or manuals but by sitting at his elbow and feeling the wood as he felt it to assess its length, its balance, and its timbre right there in their fingertips. All the learning happened at his elbow, and all the knowledge was contained in his fingers. That is the call of Jesus. Follow me. Trust me to lead you. Allow me to teach you how to live in my kingdom. Learn to do what I do. Become my apprentice.
Jesus invites us to follow him, and he transforms who we are and what we do. They were fishermen. He would make them fishers of men. They would play a role in Jesus transforming the lives of others, just as he transformed theirs. You see, when a fish is caught by a fisherman, that fish’s reality is irrevocably altered. They didn’t have any concept of catch and release fishing. When they fished, the fish got eaten. Period. Jesus was going to radically alter their lives, and they would be his instruments in radically altering the lives of others. Jesus invites us into his work. He invites us to be transformed by him, and then everything changes for us. Our goals change. Our sense of purpose changes. The call to follow Jesus, to become his apprentice, is a call to break all ties to follow the master.
These men saw themselves in a certain way. They were regular. They were ordinary. They hadn’t made it through their education. They were fishermen. It wasn’t a bad thing. It just was. But Jesus sees in us more than we see in ourselves. We see our failures. Our shortcomings. Our limitations. But he doesn’t see us through our eyes. He looks through his eyes. And he sees us through the lens of his transforming work in our lives. He sees what HE wants to do in us, and what HE wants to do through us. He sees himself forgiving our failures and shortcomings. He sees HIS power flowing into us and through us, transforming us. When he look at us, he doesn’t see what WE can do, he sees what HE can do.
Now look! Look at V. 18. And V. 20. They drop everything to follow. His command, “Follow me” shatters their common, everyday world and their response is immediate and radical. They get up, they put their nets down, and they follow Jesus. They have no idea where Jesus will take them – the highs or the lows. All they know is that Jesus wants them.
Jesus wants you. His call to you is the same as it was to them. Repent, believe, and follow me. Become my apprentice. And we can do that knowing that Jesus accomplishing his purpose in us and through us depends on his work in us. Our job is to repent, believe, and follow. To stop and turn the other way, and then to go that direction, following him.
Irene was a follower of Jesus in her seventies who attended a new church plant. Every Sunday in her church she set up the Communion table. A leadership coach who attended that church noticed that she then went around to make sure everything else was in order – and people did whatever she asked them to do. And she says, “Afterward I asked her, “Irene, have you ever considered that you have leadership gifts?”
“Absolutely not!” she said. “I am just an ordinary woman, housewife, and mother. I’m not leading; I’m just serving.”
Some months later, our young church received a visit from a Rwandan church leader. He told the church how he dreamed of starting an orphanage and school for children whose parents had been slaughtered in the genocide. We decided we had to help. Could we hold a banquet to raise funds? Irene agreed to help put on the banquet.
When she visited a possible caterer, she somehow convinced the caterer to donate most of the food. Irene talked with a banquet hall, and they gave her a deep discount. So did the tech people. No one could tell Irene no. On the banquet night, over 200 people came, and enough money was raised to build the school and its first dormitory.
I teased her afterward: “Irene, that was amazing! Maybe you are a leader?” She laughed, for she finally had to acknowledge the truth. Each May, Irene led the banquet again. Now we could see photos of kids who had lived on the streets and never brushed their teeth flashing broad, white smiles. Boys who had been malnourished, their arms and legs painfully thin, now ran and jumped across the courtyard on strong legs. Girls who’d come dressed in rags showed off their neat school uniforms and barrettes.
After Irene went to be with the Lord, Sonrise Orphanage named a dorm after her, and only then did I find out that the banquet she’d led had singlehandedly covered one third of the school’s operating costs. Jesus wants ordinary people. So let me ask you again … why are you here? Let’s pray.